Gary James' Interview With Record Producer
He's one of the most famous record producers of the 1960s and it's easy to see why. He worked with artists like The Who, The Kinks, Manfred Mann and David Bowie to name just a few. Shel Talmy is the gentleman we're talking about.
Q - You gave an interview to Richie Unterberger
(www.RichieUnterberger.com) and you said you returned from England to L.A. in September, 1963 and were telling everyone about the impending explosion of British bands. "All I need is $5,000 and I can tie up every British band there is. I could have gotten The Stones for about $500, The Beatles for maybe $1,000 and everybody else for about $100 each." When you say "tie up", what are you referring to? Who would you pay this money to?
A - I'm talking about getting the rights to them for America.
Q - The recording rights?
A - And or the releasing rights. I wasn't talking about eliminating the producers. I was talking about the rights to their releases, which would certainly mean money to me and in some cases maybe I would've wound up as the producer, but was talking about the fact that nobody in America knew anything about what was happening in England. I could've tied up everything for a very little amount of money to be the major conduit of what eventually happened.
Q - How long were you in England?
A - A year.
Q - Do you find it odd that besides Sid Bernstein, no one else was paying attention to the British music scene?
A - It certainly appears that way. You have to of course project yourself into 1962, 1963; No social networking, no internet. No communications in terms of... People didn't even pick up the phone and say "Tell me about so and so." When I went over and bluffed my way into a job as a producer, nobody in England picked up the phone to America to find out about my alleged bonafides. They wrote letters and that's the way it was.
Q - William Morris had a London office and they didn't pick up on what was going on!
A - Evidently not. The one person that did pick up on it, and I didn't find out 'til many years later, was my friend Nik Venet, who was at Capitol (Records). I sent him some of The Beatles' stuff and told him all about it. It was only many years later that Nik told me that's how Capitol wound up with the initial Beatle releases. He went to the president of Capitol and convinced him to sign up The Beatles' releases.
Q - That president would have been Alan Livingston.
A - He should've 'cause Nik was one of his better producers and certainly the best producer in my opinion that he had at Capitol
Q - He was the guy who signed The Beach Boys?
A - Bobby Darin and a lot of other people.
Q - How did the British labels view the British bands in the early '60s? Did they see this music as lasting, as revolutionary?
A - I don't think that they recognized that at all. Again, let me put you in the time frame, at that time there was no such thing, except for me, as an independent producer. All producers were on staff, earning a decent wage but certainly not an extensive one, with no royalties. So, when I went over as young and brash as I was and absolutely nothing to lose, I said "I'm an independent producer. I get this amount per week and also I get royalties." So, do I think the staff producers recognized that? No. I think they would have liked to have. They would have liked to have been that way. I'm sure they thought of how nice it would be, but I don't think anybody planned it.
Q - Again, going back to this interview you gave Richie Unterberger, you said "I may have been the only straight producer in the whole world." Is that referring to your sexuality or drugs?
A - Oh, drugs. Absolutely.
Q - That's what I thought you meant.
A - (laughs)
Q - Even in the '60s? I thought drugs didn't come along until later in the '60s.
A - I said that because apparently I'm the only one who remembers the '60s (laughs).
Q - The people at Decca did not understand or appreciate the music of The Who, but they all allowed you to produce them and they in turn went out and promoted the product. How do you promote something you don't understand?
A - No. That's wrong. The Who was my money. It had nothing to do with Decca, except that I brought them to Decca and they turned them down. I then went to Decca America who was affiliated with Decca, but didn't own them anymore or vice-versa, which ever way that was. They're the ones that signed the band. Eventually, The Who came back to be released in England on Brunswick, which was a Decca label.
Q - So, who's promoting the record, Brunswick?
A - Yes, I guess. Whoever the promotion guy was. The first hit had already started sort of breaking in America. By that time they knew they had something.
Q - How do you promote something you don't understand?
A - The people in America didn't understand the band. They had no clue. They were extremely nice people who were the top executives of American Decca who were in their 60s and 70s and had no clue about what Rock 'n' Roll was, but felt they probably should get involved with it because it looked like the thing to do. So they signed it. The record was broken by some DJ or some promotion man in Detroit. I never found out who it was. Whoever it was, God bless him, because he broke the record and it kind of went from there.
Q - When you were in England, were you out at the clubs watching those upcoming bands?
A - Only every night.
Q - Tell me some of the bands you were looking at back then. Did you see The Beatles or The Stones?
A - I never saw The Beatles. I saw The Stones. They had already been signed by
Andrew Oldham. Of course, I got The Kinks. I got Creation. I got Manfred Mann. In fact, I brought Manfred Mann into Decca and they turned them down on me. They went elsewhere and then Paul Jones left and they then came back to me and that's how I wound up with them.
Q - You didn't think Ringo was a very good drummer in comparison to Keith Moon. But you would agree that Ringo's style helped define The Beatles, wouldn't you?
A - I think we're talking apples and oranges here. Ringo is a very good, straight ahead drummer. He certainly, absolutely suited what The Beatles were doing. In terms of expertise, I don't think anybody will dispute that Keith Moon is a much better drummer and that musically speaking The Who are a much better band than The Beatles.
Q - A much better band?
A - Musically speaking? Absolutely.
Q - How big of a transition was it for you to go from a recording engineer to a record producer?
A - Virtually nothing because of the fact that most every recording engineer I've ever met, the people I was engineering for, I thought I could do better than they could as producer. So of course ego comes into play. I thought, yeah, I can do this better. So it was no problem at all. In fact, I had already started producing in L.A. before I went to England. I was offered a four singles contract by a label right before I went. I said "I'll be back in a few weeks and I'll take it up," but obviously I didn't. I stayed seventeen years.
Q - You told another interviewer by the name of Digger, "One of the prime talents of a record producer is being able to spot a hit before it's recorded and before the trend has come. You're working six months ahead."
A - That's absolutely right.
Q - How do you spot a hit six months ahead?
A - If I knew that I'd bottle it and make several billion. I have no clue. It's just one of those kinds of things. It has to do I suppose with personal taste. I liked songs and they were a hit. The best example I can give you is when I signed David Bowie. We were like six years ahead. So that's how much I knew. (laughs) What I wound up doing with him was certainly not in fashion and it never happened 'til six years later.
Q - You didn't really like personal managers, however you did like Brian Epstein. Why would that have been?
A - I don't know where you read that. I didn't know Brian Epstein. I met him once casual. I didn't know anything about him. I really got on well with Tony Stratton Smith who was a good friend. The rest of 'em I found I had difficulties with. The two guys from The Kinks were fine. I had no problems with them. But I did have problems with Larry Page (The Kinks).
Q - Where did you meet Brian Epstein?
A - Probably The Revolution or The Speakeasy.
Q - You say there are no music people left in the business. Are you saying that the record business is being run by accountants and lawyers?
A - I said there are very few music people left in the business. They're mostly now executives with accounting backgrounds or lawyers or whatever. There are very few who really grew up with music or in some cases even like music.
Q - That probably explains why the record business is so dismal these days.
A - Well, dismal is a good word. The stuff that's out there is repetitive, not particularly tuneful. I think it's fair to say that if you picked anything out the Top 20, how many people are going to be humming it in about five or ten years from now? (laughs) As opposed to all of the great songs that started back in the '30s right up through the mid '80s.
Q - And that's kind of strange, isn't it? Certainly the technology is the best it's ever been. Musicians can play their instruments much better than their predecessors ever could in the 1950s, yet the songwriting isn't there.
A - Songwriters kind of disappeared mid '80s and the music business took a strange turn. Of course Rap was taken up as the new way to do everything. As far as I'm concerned, I don't like people calling Rap "music" 'cause it's not. You want to call it Street Poetry, I'm all in favor of it, but it's certainly not music.
Q - Do you think we're going to see the emergence of the independent label again?
A - As things are cyclical, yes. The question is; when? In my life time? Probably not. (laughs)
Q - What do you keep yourself busy with these days?
A - I just finished mixing a CD for actually a '70s band called
Fifth Estate. It was fun. They're Rock 'n' Roll. That was enjoyable. I'm flattered to say that I'm still asked to produce bands and I can honestly say I haven't heard one that I would want to lock myself up with for any length of time. That's the last umpteenth number of months or years or whatever. Until such time as that happens, which begins to look even more doubtful as time goes on, I guess I'll just do what I'm doing.